Friday, December 19, 2014

Friday Freebie: The Kept by James Scott, Glyph by Percival Everett, What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell, All I Have In This World by Michael Parker, Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, Our Senior Year by John Abraham-Watne, The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne, and Harm's Reach by Alex Barclay

Congratulations to Michael Cooper, winner of last week's Friday Freebie contest: Closed Doors by Lisa O'Donnell and Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly.

This week's book giveaway is an eclectic grab-bag of titles to stuff your Christmas stocking (though, by the time the books arrive at the winner's house, it will be more like a New Year's gift).  Up for grabs: paperback copies of The Kept by James Scott, Glyph by Percival Everett, What Happened Here by Bonnie ZoBell, All I Have In This World by Michael Parker, Arts & Entertainments by Christopher Beha, Our Senior Year by John Abraham-Watne, The Gods of Second Chances by Dan Berne, and Harm's Reach by Alex Barclay.  Read on for more information about each book:

The Kept takes place in the winter of 1897, when Elspeth Howell treks across miles of snow and ice to the isolated farmstead in upstate New York where she and her husband have raised their five children.  Her midwife's salary is tucked into the toes of her boots, and her pack is full of gifts for her family.  But as she crests the final hill, and sees her darkened house and a smokeless chimney, immediately she knows that an unthinkable crime has destroyed the life she so carefully built.  Her lone comfort is her twelve-year-old son, Caleb, who joins her in mourning the tragedy and planning its reprisal.  Their long journey leads them to a rough-hewn lake town, defined by the violence both of its landscape and of its inhabitants.  There Caleb is forced into a brutal adulthood, as he slowly discovers truths about his family he never suspected, and Elspeth must confront the terrible urges and unceasing temptations that have haunted her for years.  Throughout it all, the love between mother and son serves as the only shield against a merciless world.  A scorching portrait of guilt and lost innocence, atonement and retribution, resilience and sacrifice, pregnant obsession and primal adolescence, The Kept is told with deep compassion and startling originality, and introduces James Scott as a major new literary voice.  BONUS: Click here to read about James Scott's "first time."

In Glyph, by the consistently-underappreciated and under-read Percival Everett, Baby Ralph has ways to pass the time in his crib—but they don’t include staring at a mobile.  Aided by his mother, he reads voraciously: “All of Swift, all of Sterne, Invisible Man, Baldwin, Joyce, Balzac, Auden, Roethke,” along with a generous helping of philosophy, semiotics, and trashy thrillers.  He’s also fond of writing poems and stories (in crayon).  But Ralph has limits. He’s mute by choice and can’t drive, so in his own estimation he’s not a genius.  Unfortunately for him, everyone else disagrees.  His psychiatrist kidnaps him for testing, and once his brilliance is quantified (IQ: 475), a Pentagon officer also abducts him.  Diabolically funny and lacerating in its critique of poststructuralism, Glyph has the feverish plot of a thriller and the philosophical depth of a text by Roland Barthes.  If anyone can map the wilds of literary theory, it’s Ralph, one of Percival Everett’s most enduring creations.  And now, thanks to Graywolf Press, this 1999 novel is back in print (released in paperback earlier this year)!

What Happened Here delivers a wildly different cast of characters living on the same block in North Park, San Diego, site of the PSA Flight 182 crash in 1978.  The crash is history, but its legacy seeps in the stories of the neighborhood’s inhabitants, bringing grief, anxiety, and rebellion to the surface and eventually assists in burning clean the lives of those who live in the shadow of disaster.  Amidst the pathos of contemporary life, humor flits through these stories like the macaws that have taken to the trees of North Park.  The birds ensure that there’s never a dull moment in the neighborhood, and their outrageous colors and noisome squawks serve as constant reminds of regrowth.  Praise for What Happened Here: “Bonnie ZoBell’s luminously intersecting stories of artists, musicians, teachers and assorted shimmering misfits in a North Park neighborhood that happens to be the site of a historic plane wreck, beautifully chronicles the struggles of the living to survive–emotionally and physically–in the shadow of wreckage and ghosts.  Her characters’ connections, madnesses, kindnesses and demons are startlingly poignant and resonant.”  (Gina Frangello, author of A Life in Men)  BONUS: Click here to read about Bonnie ZoBell's "first time."

In Michael Parker's All I Have In This World, two strangers meet over the hood of a used car in Texas: Marcus, who is fleeing both his financial and personal failures, and Maria, who after years of dodging her mistakes has returned to her hometown to make amends.  One looking forward, the other looking back, they face off over the car they both want.  And after knowing each other for less than an hour, they decide to buy it together.  All I Have in This World is a different kind of love story about the power of friendship.  The New York Times calls it "a Springsteenian ode to the promise and heartbreak of the highway."  More praise for the novel: “Parker’s skillfully rendered story rolls like a restless, unpredictable west Texas river—calm depths here, turbulent shallows there—as Marcus and Maria communicate and lurch toward an imperfect union....Which feels a lot like real life.” (The Denver Post)  BONUS: Click here to read about Michael Parker's "first time."

In Arts & Entertainments, handsome Eddie Hartley was once a golden boy poised for the kind of success promised by good looks and a modicum of talent.  Now thirty-three, he has abandoned his dream of an acting career and accepted the reality of life as a drama teacher at the boys' prep school he once attended.  But when Eddie and his wife, Susan, discover they cannot have children, it's one disappointment too many.  Weighted down with debt, Susan's mounting unhappiness, and his own deepening sense of failure, Eddie is confronted with an alluring solution when an old friend-turned-Web-impresario suggests Eddie sell a sex tape he made with an ex-girlfriend, now a wildly popular television star.  In an era when any publicity is good publicity, Eddie imagines that the tape won't cause any harm--a mistake that will have disastrous consequences and propel him straight into the glaring spotlight he once thought he craved.  A hilariously biting and incisive takedown of our culture's monstrous obsession with fame, Arts & Entertainments is also a poignant and humane portrait of a young man's belated coming-of-age, the complications of love, and the surprising ways in which the most meaningful lives often turn out to be the ones we least expected to lead.

In Our Senior Year, the debut novel by John Abraham-Watne, Minneapolis writer Jason Wareheim never expected to go back to his ten-year high school reunion, but what he found back in his hometown changed the way he saw everything.  The journal left behind by his best friend, Jack Wayne, brings back all the memories of their senior year, inspiring Jason to finally tell the story of "the three musketeers" and their lives in the small town of Clarmont, Iowa.  Theirs was a story crossed by love, tragedy, friendship, loyalty, and simple cruising on gravel roads.  This is a story of high school.  For more information about John Abraham-Watne and his debut novel, click here to visit his website.  BONUS: Click here to read about John Abraham-Watne's "first time."

In The Gods of Second Chances, a novel by Dan Berne released earlier this year by Forest Avenue Press, family means everything to Alaskan fisherman Ray Bancroft, raising his granddaughter while battling storms, invasive species, and lawsuit-happy tourists.  To navigate, and to catch enough crab to feed her college fund, Ray seeks help from a multitude of gods and goddesses—not to mention ad-libbed rituals performed at sea by his half-Tlingit best friend.  But kitchen counter statues and otter bone ceremonies aren’t enough when his estranged daughter returns from prison, swearing she’s clean and sober.  Her search for a safe harbor threatens everything Ray holds sacred.  Set against a backdrop of ice and mud and loss, Dan Berne’s gripping debut novel explores the unpredictable fissures of memory, and how families can break apart even in the midst of healing.

In Harm's Reach, which will be released in early 2015, FBI Agent Ren Bryce finds herself entangled in two seemingly unrelated mysteries.  But the past has a way of echoing down the years and finding its way into the present.  When Bryce discovers the body of a young woman in an abandoned car, solving the case becomes personal.  But the more she uncovers about the victim's last movements, the more questions are raised.  Why was Laura Flynn driving towards a ranch for troubled teens in the middle of Colorado when her employers thought she was hundreds of miles away?  And what did she know about a case from fifty years ago, which her death dramatically reopens?  As Ren and cold case investigator Janine Hooks slowly weave the threads together, a picture emerges of a privileged family determined to hide some very dark secrets whatever the cost."

If you’d like a chance at winning ALL THE BOOKS, simply email your name and mailing address to

Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line.  One entry per person, please.  Despite its name, the Friday Freebie runs all week long and remains open to entries until midnight on Dec. 25, at which time I’ll draw the winning name.  I’ll announce the lucky reader on Dec. 26.  If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email.  Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning?  Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter.  Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Year of Reading: Best Book Covers of 2014

It seems appropriate to be talking about favorite book cover designs around this time of year.  Christmas, after all, is all about bright, attractive paper wrapped around surprises which are just a finger-rip away.  Sure, sometimes those concealed gifts turn out to be puzzling disappointments like socks embroidered with leaping trout or the annual Avon soap-on-a-rope from a well-meaning grandmother (I'm speaking from personal childhood trauma here), but even those Christmas duds are usually nice to look at before the paper is torn away.

Book jackets are the gift-wrap of the publishing world.  While we shouldn't judge the contents of a book by its cover, it's hard to ignore that first impression, isn't it?  I'll be the first to admit, I sometimes buy a book based entirely on the lure of its cover (including a couple of the ones listed below).  Call me shallow, but I like my words packaged in eye-candy.

Here are my favorite designs of books published in 2014. I've listed the designer's name whenever possible; some of them also popped up on last year's Best Covers list--that's because they're damned good at what they do.

The Secret of Raven Point by Jennifer Vanderbes
Design by Gabrielle Wilson
The cover design for Vanderbes' novel about a young woman searching for her brother who is missing in action in Italy was one of the first to catch my attention in 2014.  Half a profile and one eye of a World War Two-era WAC can be seen behind a sheet of yellowed, stained and torn memo paper which bears the book's title and a small red cross (nicely linked to the girl's bright red lipstick as well as her job as an Army nurse).

Design by Gray318
Turning the cover into birch bark itself may have seemed like an obvious move, but I think the simplicity of those little slits and the big bold font of the title are all we really need.

The House on the Cliff by Charlotte Williams
Design by Andrea Cardenas
I love how the titular building is so faint you can barely see it perched above the dark grassy knoll which is under most of the title and the author's name.  This is as atmospheric as a fog-swirled Manderley.

Design by Christopher Lin
Sideways landscapes seem to be all the rage lately (see also: California by Edan Lepucki and We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas), but I think the design and illustration for Justin Go's debut is one of my favorites--both for the deep, delicious blues which contrast the white peaks and the egg-yolk-yellow moon in "of," but also for the subtle way the mirror image of the mountain range takes on an hourglass shape, linking back to the title itself.

Winterkill by Kate A. Boorman
Design by Maria T. Middleton
Illustration by Shane Rebebschied
Here's an instance where I did buy the book based on the cover.  Sure, the perspective is all skewed if you really think about it, but the illustration muscles its way right into our eyes to announce what the book is about: a girl fleeing a threatening place (I love those whittled-sharp points on the title's lettering!), making her way along "the wayward path" through deep snow.  I immediately wanted to know why she was running and what she'd do once she got to her destination.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Design by Allison Saltzman
In this novel, set in Amsterdam in 1686, a bride receives an unusual wedding gift from her husband: a miniature replica of their house.  That world-within-a-world idea is nicely echoed in the snowy street scene found in the folds of the parakeet-bearing woman's dress.  While I love the spectrum of blues at work here, the green exclamation point of the bird and the splash of yellowed scroll beneath the title are brilliant notes of beauty.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Design by Tal Goretsky and Lynn Buckley
Photo by Manuel Clauzier
I really seemed to have a thing for blue covers this year and with that wide expanse of sky, the design for Doerr's masterful novel was one of the best.  If you've read All the Light We Cannot See (and if you haven't, what are you waiting for?!), you know the central role the walled citadel of Saint-Malo plays in the story of a blind French girl and a German boy whose lives intersect during World War Two.  This design wins the prize for Most-Looked-At in 2014: as I got deeper and deeper into the novel, I kept turning back to the cover to stare at the landscape of Saint-Malo.

Young God by Katherine Faw Morris
Design by Rodrigo Corral
Photo by George Baier IV
Katherine Faw Morris' debut novel about a 13-year-old girl involved with the drug trade in North Carolina is raw, relentless and in-your-face with language that scarcely pauses to take a breath.  Likewise, Rodrigo Corral's cover design of that powder-dusted (cocaine?) hand literally reaches out to beckon us onto the first page.  I love the wry humor of putting the title and author text on the middle finger.

Doll Palace by Sara Lippmann
Design by Kelly Rae Bahr
Sara Lippmann's story collection from new small indie publisher Dock Street Press is brightly decorated with a rainbow of paper dolls; making one of them battered and crumpled was a brilliant move.

Bicentennial by Dan Chiasson
Design by Carol Devine Carson
When I bought this collection of poetry at Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Montana, the girl behind the counter groaned, "God, now I'm hungry for pizza."  Well, yes, the cover is a tasty one, but the contents are just as delicious.  Bicentennial celebrates America's 200th birthday in the 168-line poem that serves as the collection's rousing finale, but fireworks shoot off everywhere on these pages in stanzas about growing up in Vermont, Chiasson's mixed feelings about his absentee father, and, yes, what's it's like to wait for the delivery of a pizza when you're a young, hormone-fueled kid.

I love the Michelangelo vibe going on here.  Are the hands reaching out to connect, or have they just let go and now they're falling away from each other in space?  The ambiguity is pertinent to this big novel which is bursting with ideas about faith and love and global apocalypse.

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy
The tagline for Jennifer Murphy's novel is "One man, three wives, the perfect murder."  As far as I'm concerned, this is the perfect cover for a novel about scheming widows.  That gleaming gun set against the black dresses introduces just the right air of mystery and menace.

Design by Gretchen Mergenthaler
Speaking of menace, is anyone else creeped out by the stare-down contest coming from Paula Daly's new novel?  This girl--the "other woman" who threatens to break up a marriage--has Trouble written all over her face.  The fact that designer Gretchen Mergenthaler fenced off that face behind the big font of the book's title doesn't make me feel any more relaxed.

The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner
Design by Janet Bruesselbach
Vladimir Pozner's Studs Terkel-esque "travelogue" about life in Depression-era American was originally published in French in 1938.  Seven Stories Press released it in a fresh translation this year here in the U.S. and, from what I've read in its pages, The Disunited States is an evocative verbal photo album of what life was like during those hard times.  Dorothea Lange's photo on the cover shows two vagrants heading down a highway in search of their dreams...or perhaps just their next meal.  Extra kudos for that spot-on line-break in the title.

Cementville by Paulette Livers
Design by Michael Kellner
No, the neatly-folded flag floating in a creek seems rather unlikely, but I get the symbolism.  Paulette Livers' novel, set in a small Kentucky town in 1969, is about how families and friends are torn apart by the news that seven young men from the town have been killed in a single ambush in Vietnam.  When their bodies come back in coffins, that's when trouble really starts brewing in Cementville.  So, yeah, maybe somebody does toss a flag into a muddy creek.  One of the things I like best about this cover is the way the title seems to rise out of the landscape itself.  Symbolism again.

Straight White Male by John Niven
Design by Sam Wolgemuth
I don't know about you, but I see a martini glass.

Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
Design by Martha Kennedy
David Mendelsohn's photo of former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall's face is cropped to perfection.  We need a roadmap to navigate those dry creek beds, the hilly pouches, and that magnificent forest of a beard.  I could stare at Donald Hall's face all day long and come away with a dozen different stories.  Mortality is one theme of Hall's new collection of essays (he writes: "In the morning, I turn on the coffee, glue in my teeth, take four pills, swallow Metamucil and wipe it off my beard, fasten a brace over my buckling knee...then read the newspaper and drink black coffee") and this in-your-face jacket design lets us know we're in for some bracing, honest discussions about death, beards, marriage, cooking and sex--all told from Hall's ancestral home on Eagle Pond in New Hampshire.  The state's famed "Old Man of the Mountain" granite outcropping collapsed in 2003.  I nominate Mr. Hall's visage as a suitable replacement.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2014

Every book has to start somewhere, right?

These were some of the greatest opening lines of 2014 books I came across this year.  Whether it was through startling imagery, clever grammatical construction or just plain oddness, these first sentences worked hard to get my attention.  They entranced, they intrigued, they hooked, they pulled me inside, they persuaded me to linger.   Whether or not the rest of the book held up to that first promise isn't the issue here (though, in most cases, these books do deliver the goods).  What matters is the first impression.  These lines were the unforgettable ones.

P.S.  If you want to read the rest of the words in these books, make sure you click the title link beneath each sentence and order your copy from R. J. Julia Booksellers.

We shot dogs.
     Redeployment by Phil Klay

It felt like a noble gesture at the time, and I was in the mood for an adventure.
     Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn

A girl always remembers the first corpse she shaves.
     Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Once upon a time, in a far off land, I was kidnapped by a gang of fearless yet terrified young men with so much impossible hope beating inside their bodies it burned their very skin and strengthened their will right through their bones.
     An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

I'm pretty much fucked.
     The Martian by Andy Weir

Patterson Wells walks through the front door to find Chase working on a heap of crystal meth the size of his shrunken head.
     Cry Father by Benjamin Whitmer

The end came for Jane, and so for us, at the edge of spring, when the leaves of the north country were washed in that impossible shade of lemonade green.
     The Carry Home by Gary Ferguson

They never found his hands.
     The Forgers by Bradford Morrow

There was a town, and there was a librarian, and there was a fire.
     Shouldn't You Be in School? by Lemony Snicket

On the steps of the old mission house, the sergeant sat with the boy who called himself Robin, and watched a pigeon being swallowed by a pelican.
     Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

The king stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.
     Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.
     The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

We found the woman floating facedown in an eddy where Crooked River made a slow bend north, just a stone skip away from the best swimming hole this side of anywhere.
     Crooked River by Valerie Geary

Exactly once upon a time in a small village in northern Iran, a child of the wrong color was born.
     The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour

Every night I stunned myself with gin.
     A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc

There was a time, not long ago, when it was illegal to kill people.
     Pills and Starships by Lydia Millett

A celestial light appeared to Barrett Meeks in the sky over Central Park, four days after Barrett had been mauled, once again, by love.
     The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham

By the time Joan of Arc proclaimed herself La Pucelle, the virgin sent by God to deliver France from its enemies, the English, she had been obeying the counsel of angels for five years.
     Joan of Arc: A Life Transfigured by Kathryn Harrison

They buried my wife in a shoe box in Central Park.
     Spoiled Brats by Simon Rich

The moose head was fixed to the wall, the microphone in its mouth was broken, but the camera in its left eye was working just fine, and as far as the moose head could see, this was just another Friday night in the Lumber Lodge!
     The Happiest People in the World by Brock Clarke

Leroy Kervin opened his eyes to see a woman in a blue-and-white-starred bikini holding a pneumatic drill.
     The Free by Willy Vlautin

I've always believed that one of the great reasons to be alive is that we don't know what's coming around the next corner.
     Good Grief! by Ellen Stimson

Sixty seconds before the baby shot its father, leaves fell lazily in Central Park.
    Brainquake by Samuel Fuller

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.
     Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off.
     Bark by Lorrie Moore

        Let's go out
        and fart in the sunlight.
     A Momentary Glory: Last Poems by Harvey Shapiro

I crash through the screen door, arms flailing like two loose propellers, stumbling like a woman on fire: hair and clothes ablaze.
     The Other Side by Lacy M. Johnson

For a ghost story, the tale of Violet Saville Devohr was vague and underwhelming.
     The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai

You are a hairy painting.
     Mad Honey Symposium by Sally Wen Mao

There is a bullet here on my desk.
     Talkativeness by Michael Earl Craig

Pretend I'm not already dead.
     A Life in Men by Gina Frangello

The funeral is supposed to be a quiet affair, for the deceased had no friends.
     The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The rumors started before my daddy’s body got cold.
     I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy

This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upward through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck, after being fired by an unknown assailant 92 years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.
     Tinseltown by William Mann

The plane smelled of sweat and perfume.
     Friday Was the Bomb by Nathan Deuel

We feel them coming, the low vibration of their wheels, a dark convoy descending upon us, pitching north like a swarm lobbed from the fist of a spiteful deity.
     Cementville by Paulette Livers

Behold Tommy Arney: six-one, two-forty, biceps big as most men’s thighs and displayed to maximum effect in the black wifebeater that is his warm-weather fashion essential.
     Auto Biography by Earl Swift

The cop flicked his cigarette to the dirt and gravel road in front of the house, and touched back his hat over his hairline as the social worker drove up in a dusty Toyota Corolla.
     Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

Because I'd seen part of a documentary on gurus who slept on beds of nails, and because I'd tried to quit smoking before my wife came back home after leaving for nine months in order to birth our first child--though she would come back childless and say it was all a lie she made up in order to check into some kind of speech clinic up in Minnesota to lose her bilateral lisp--I had a dream of chairs and beds adorned entirely with ancient car cigarette lighters.
     Between Wrecks by George Singleton